The Atlantic

The Violent Fight for Higher Education

In South Africa, student anger over tuition costs and access has bubbled over—and some observers say the tumult is a harbinger of worldwide unrest.
Source: Ihsaan Haffejee

JOHANNESBURG—From one side of the highest levels of the University of Witwatersrand administration building stretch the lush green neighborhoods of this city’s wealthy, mostly white, professional class.

From the other: the distant, ugly brown piles of toxic waste left by more than a century of gold-mining, around which huddle townships crowded with poor and less well-educated blacks.

It’s a stark and symbolic contrast. And one of the best views of it is from the vestibule outside the 11th-floor office of the university’s chief executive, where uniformed security guards are posted.

The guards are a dramatic reminder of how violent protests have become over who gets to go to college in South Africa and the escalating cost of that education. And while the underlying issues of price and access based on wealth and race almost exactly mirror those in the United States and other places, nowhere else in the world has the right to a higher education moved so passionately and quickly to the forefront of the political stage.

University administrators have been punched and taken hostage, buildings set afire, riot police called in, the higher-education minister burned in effigy, campuses shut down or placed under curfew, and exams delayed. Students have been shot with stun grenades and rubber bullets. One died when a car plowed into a demonstration

And Adam Habib, the president of Witwatersrand, warns that, at a time when a quality university education is both universally essential for many jobs and unaffordable to many people, this may be a harbinger of what’s ahead in other countries.

“South Africa is not unique. It’s just the most acute manifestation of a global conflict that’s emerging,” said the U.S.-educated Habib, who in one high-profile incident was ejected from a church by angry students holding a “peace meeting” he said he was invited to attend.

The parallels between the problems in South Africa and those in the United States and elsewhere are inescapable. Both have seen their governments investing less in higher education while students and families struggle to pay more. Many of the poorest end up at campuses with low success rates while the wealthy and white have access to the best universities.

In South Africa, this has bubbled over into turmoil, something local experts chalk up to the relatively recent triumph of the

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